The issue: From publicly celebrating the burning of witches, by our ancestors, to public display of beheading by ISIS, in our own time: We need an explanation of why such things happen.
A sociological explanation: [I.] The theory:
(1) Every religious community enshrines a particular set of solutions to the “Ultimate” questions about human existence: Such as — What happens after death? Why are we here at all, our purpose? Why do good people suffer? How to celebrate life’s transitions — births, marriage, adulthood?
(2) The “solutions” become the foundation, the rock, upon which a religious community is built.
(3) Any deviation from the enshrined solution — the existing orthodoxy of the community’s religion — can be regarded as an assault on the entire community. Its very existence is under attack.
(4) A communal response is required.
[II] The reality:
As I write these words Westerners are aghast upon hearing about — and thanks to modern technology, seeing — public beheading and other forms of grotesque cruelty we believe have long ago been eliminated from the repertoire of human social behavior. Yet here it is, coming to us in the form of ISIS practices in the Middle East, in our time; brought to our reluctant awareness, in our time. To be sure we have our own history — and heritage — of grotesque cruelty. Remember the trench warfare of the First World War — where thousands of innocent young men hacked one another to death on many a single day. Remember the battle of Verdun, with some 700 000 killed, wounded and missing. Remember the battle of Somme. But, we tell ourselves, these are matters of the past. We are now much more civilized.
Are we really more civilized? We prefer more sanitized killings, such as drone-executed lethal actions controlled, thousands of miles away, by someone pressing a button.
But still, there is something in the recent, public CELEBRATION of cruelty that goes beyond the previous horrors and, even, the sanitized contemporary ones. It takes us back to joy-filled public celebrations of mass burning of witches during the 30 Years War in the 1600’s. There, amid zealotry around religious war, innocent people might quickly meet a horrendous fate, PUBLICLY FETED, after being accused of some sort of religious transgression. It seems that religious fervor is susceptible to communal zealotry!
Religions are very much concerned with Ultimates –of trying to fathom life’s deepest meaning, of confronting sorrow and bereavement, of celebrating new birth and major transitions while we are alive. Typically, religions provide responses to these issues, giving their adherents tools for living. The actual responses which a religion offers tend to become enshrined in orthodoxies that can attain a firm status, becoming powerful ingredients of a community’s religion-based existence. They can claim to be the very foundation of a community’s existence. This bearing on community is a crucial matter! “Religiosity” is not merely a personal matter. It is a communal matter.
Within a religious community there frequently is an ongoing reiteration and veneration of its particular system of responses to the Ultimate challenges for human life. They might be performed as daily prayers and other rituals enacted communally in a church, mosque or synagogue. The responses can attain a sanctity of their own. Any deviation from them may seem to threaten the very existence OF THE COMMUNITY. This can be the heart of zealous communal responses to actual or imagined deviations from the sanctified responses to the Ultimate challenges of human existence. After all, the deviations may seem to threaten a community’s ways of addressing and resolving Ultimate challenges. What life is all about is under threat. It must be met with the severest response.
There is an additional feature about the workings of religiosity which must be recognized. Often there is an ongoing process of refinement of religious orthodoxy taking place WITHIN an existing religious community. Thus, centuries ago saw the spit within Christianity, into Catholics and Protestants — followed by the 30 Years War, where it seemed that Ultimate answers to life’s core issues was under threat. The split between SHIA and SUNNI Moslems, even centuries earlier, is highlighted by the most recent conflagrations between them. There, too, the meaning and ways of addressing Ultimates seem to be under attack, requiring the most drastic responses. In each of these we see that an entire community deems itself to be under the most dire threat, and addressing that threat publicly is meant to affirm the fundamentals of one’s religious community.